The Key Principles of Public Open Space

All open space in a development should be observably useful and visually pleasant. The provision of shade, shelter, resting points and seating, a refuse recepticals as well as natural surveillance, make such places more attractive to use, particularly for the ageing population. In addition, they are equally accessible to people with a wide range of physical and mental abilities.

Such spaces should have a clear purpose and be legible to all users. All public areas – whether squares, streets, pedestrian links or parking courts – are part of the provision of different types of space, each with their own function and designed to provide a high level of amenity and activity. The provision of arbitrary pieces of ‘public open space’ can result in spaces that are divorced from the main pattern of public street spaces, that are neither useful nor attractive, and that become a nuisance to residents while being expensive to maintain.

Evidence shows that the most effective public open spaces are large, multi-purpose, informally supervised parks. These are best allocated by the Local Plan/Development Framework process or in a Design Brief, and those Local Planning Authorities that operate a percentage-based open-space policy should aggregate the requirements of a number of smaller developments to create these larger, more useful open spaces. This is becoming even more necessary as Parks and Leisure Departments feel the effects of financial stringency and are less willing to adopt smaller and less economically viable open spaces. In some cases, management companies may have to be established to run and maintain open spaces.

While parks should be the key form of open-space provision, there remains a role for smaller, local open spaces that help to create a more varied townscape. While smaller in size and less formal in nature, such spaces should still be clearly defined and easily accessible, located in close proximity to walking / cycling routes with identifiable links to, from and between them. This ensures they can still be used safely and without anxiety by older people or those with dementia.  Smaller open spaces should not be of a lower quality than larger open-space provision and should retain the same multi-functional properties as larger spaces to ensure the greatest value is attained.

In certain arrangements, the private garden spaces of houses facing, backing on to or immediately adjacent to a substantial area of well-landscaped, properly maintained communal open space may be reduced in size. Such layouts lend themselves to passive natural surveillance, which in turn encourages increased use of the open spaces. Such situations are analogous to the classic Georgian square, and in such cases it is often appropriate for the space to be maintained by a management company. This provision compensates for smaller gardens and should be additional to any percentage-based open-space requirement set out by a Local Planning Authority.

Research undertaken by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) advises that, as well as giving exposure to natural light and air, access to open space or a garden provides a place for familiar activities, which is particularly important for people with dementia. Spending time in a garden or open space can also help people to relax; people with dementia are less likely to become agitated or distressed if they have regular access to fresh air, exercise and quiet space away from others.

It is preferable for parks and public open spaces to be fronted by houses rather than tucked away behind them. This allows them to become a more obvious part of the circulation system while benefitting from informal supervision. In its turn, the open space contributes to the amenity of outlook of the houses. Open spaces should similarly be a focus for pedestrian and cycle networks – and it should not be necessary to cross a main road in order to reach one from a footway or cycleway.

Accessible Natural Greenspace Standards (ANGSt) have been devised by Natural England as a means of providing benchmarks for assessing the provision of places where people can experience and enjoy nature. Access to natural green space can make an important contribution to the quality of life in an urban area, and the ANGSt targets help to determine this accessibility.

Page updated: 24/09/2019

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